Rural Ireland has a unique place in English literature and has served as a backdrop to untold great novels. It is at once foreign but familiar, rich in resources yet impoverished, bucolic yet violent. Its landscape, characterised by stone walls, green fields and unforgiving coastlines, is redolent of mythology, folklore and magic. From William Trevor’s poignant The Story of Lucy Gault to the fear and violence of Bernard MacLaverty’s Cal, the rural landscape is always there, as much a character as the protagonists themselves.
I set my current novel, The Lonesome Heart is Angry, in Castlemartin, a fictitious Mid-Ulster village, because doing so allowed me to observe the rural pace of life and examine in great detail people who are too busy living their lives to be preoccupied by them. I grew up in Magherafelt, a similar village, and was a messenger boy for a grocer shop. As I delivered groceries, I got to hear first-hand all the village gossip and discovered exactly how destructive it could be.
As boys and girls in rural Ireland grow into men and women, some of them will be lured by the big city. They are incapable of losing their country ways, no matter how hard they try. At the same time their contemporaries, in these same cities, read about how rich and wonderful their lives might have been had they been part of country communities. These books show the magic of rural living, but also, each in their own way, explain how the characters, and most of all the authors, had to become exiles and leave village life behind to become fully captivated by its innocent charm.
1. Amongst Women by John McGahern
In this, McGahern’s finest novel, Michael Moran (perhaps partially based on the author’s father) an ageing, grudge-bearing IRA vet, is a devout Catholic and well respected in the community. At the same time, he’s a domineering tyrant to his family. It is told, in part, using flashbacks from his exiled daughters as they are gathered back at the family home, Great Meadow, in the midlands of Ireland, to care for the ailing Moran. The title comes from Moran’s daily Hail Mary recital containing the line, “blessed art thou amongst women,” perhaps referencing the four strong women in his life. In the author’s own neck of the woods, it’s been said that most men go to the market to study the cattle, while McGahern went to the market to study the characters. This classic novel confirms just how well he spent his time.
2. The Contractors by John B Keane
While his play The Field deals very successfully with the conflict between old and new in the Irish country, The Contractors takes the rural character abroad. Our hero, Dan Murray, emigrated to England in 1952 and found work with other Irish exiles as a building labourer. After years of watching from afar and gaining confidence, he sets up on his own as a building contractor. He hand-picks his own fresh team from various parts of Ireland and works on the theory that if his team does great work and finishes the job ahead of time then his reputation and profits will grow. He must deal with violence as he protects his own patch and with the politics of romance in his pursuit of the beautiful Iris O’Lully. John B Keane is just incredible at creating a character’s back story and his plotting is an example to any writer.
3. The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor
This story starts off with Lucy’s father, Captain Gault, firing a warning shot at a young arsonist. Gault wounds the arsonist and, fearing repercussions, he plans to move the family to England. Lucy, still a child, decides she can’t abide leaving their wonderful house by the sea, and so the night before departure she hides in the woods. Her parents are led to believe she has drowned. Lucy’s dream comes true and she gets to stay in the house and is taken care of by the servants-cum-caretaker-farmers. William Trevor guides us compellingly through a deeply lonely, loveless and guilt-ridden life in this unforgettable book.
4. Blue Tango by Eoin McNamee
Blue Tango is a version of the true life murder of Northern Ireland high court judge Lancelot Curran’s teenage daughter, Patricia. The same Lancelot Curran would later preside over the trial of Robert McGladdery. McGladdery was the last man to be hanged in Ireland and the subject of the final part of Eoin McNamee’s “Blue” trilogy, The Blue Tango. McNamee’s description of the people and places of Northern Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s is precise and soulful. As Norman Mailer’s Executioner’s Song is to the American Novel, then Blue Tango must be to the Irish canon.
5. The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien
Brilliant and brave; banned and burned. Edna O’Brien’s first book (1960) brought shame on her family when it was banned by the Irish censor and burned by the local priest at the pulpit. Two young Irish girls, Kate (the narrator) and Baba, leave the safety of the local convent behind them in search of adventure and love in the big city. Kate’s priority is to find true love; Baba grasps the carefree life of a single girl while both try to maintain what is, at times, a difficult friendship. O’Brien’s book was responsible for outing sexual and social issues in greatly repressed times.
6. The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty by Sebastian Barry
Sebastian Barry shares John B Keane’s lyrical theme of rural exiles. Eneas McNulty longs for France and discovers (he thinks) a way of getting there: by enlisting in the British merchant navy. He forsakes his childhood friend, Jonno Lynch, in the process. Eneas is shipped to Galveston, Texas instead of France and later returns to Sligo only to discover that the locals, including Jonno, have branded him a traitor. Eneas makes matters even worse by joining the Royal Irish Constabulary and escapes his ordered execution by travelling, pausing briefly to work in a French vineyard. He also spends time in Nigeria but, accepting that you can take the Irish out of Ireland but you can never take Ireland out of the Irish, he returns to Sligo an old man ready to meet his punishment. The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty perfectly portrays how, even far away from the blatant corruption of the big cities, fear and jealously will seamlessly evolve into evil. Barry will make you shiver while reading alone at night and maybe even send you to check once again that you’ve bolted the door.
7. The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore
Belfast’s Brian Moore wrote this book when he was exiled in Canada trying to escape the vice-like grip of religion in Ireland. Originally published as Judith Hearne, this is a brilliant study of a woman, an alcoholic, relocated in Belfast in the bleak 1950s. Brian Moore savagely paints the picture of how a lack of love has totally destroyed Judith Hearne, just as loveless lives did for many an Ulster soul like her.
8. Cal by Bernard MacLaverty
Northern Irish Cal has been a getaway driver in the murder of a police reserve. And then he has to deal with falling in love with the murdered man’s widow. The deeper he falls, the worse he feels. This is another vitally significant rural novel which takes you through to the other side of the twitching curtains.
9. To School Through the Fields by Alice Taylor
One of Ireland’s biggest-selling books, and it’s easy to see why. To School Through the Fields consists of a series of real-life reflections from Alice Taylor’s schooldays and is beautifully written – you can hear her infectious voice in each and every sentence. These countryside stories are redolent of a time and a place that is vanished but, thanks to volumes like this, will never ever be forgotten.
10. Beyond by Michael Foley
This time we have a delightful slice of small town life in Northern Ireland, during the sexual revolution of the 1960s. A wannabe mover, shaker and chartered accountant wants to have his cake and to eat it too, in the shape of his wife Marie and their friend Helen. Beyond provides a blow-by-blow account of the sadness of life when the mystery of women is lost or taken away.
• Paul Charles’s latest novel The Lonesome Heart is Angry is published by New Island Press, £11.99